The media landscape in Iraq has undergone a radical transformation since state-run Iraqi television abruptly went off air following the US-led invasion in March 2003. With no state television and the ownership of satellite dishes banned by the Baathist regime, Iraqis were, quite literally, starved for information. As a result, satellite dish sales skyrocketed in the months following the invasion, leading to one of the highest penetration rates in the world in just two years. From three national TV stations and 14 officially sanctioned Arb channels (the latter only available to a select few via card subscription in the two years before the war) many Iraqis suddenly found themselves with access to over 300 satellite channels and a handful of new Iraq-oriented networks. "These people had nothing, and now they are overwhelmed with satellite channels. It is a chance to get back to the real world," says Jean-Claude Boulos, head of Iraqi broadcaster Al Sumaria.
Today, the "real world" of the country's splintered political scene is only too well reflected in Iraq's 30-plus terrestrial and satellite channels, the layput of which increasingly mirrors the country's turbulant scene, with stations cropping up to represent every sectarian and political trend.(1)
With Iraq's TV menu growing increasingly sectarian, it is possible to draw a parallel wit Lebanon's highly sectarianized hodgepodge of channels--linked directly or loosely with political parties--which regularly report sect-specific news.(2) It is therefore perhaps fitting to speak of the "Lebanonozation" of Iraq'a media,(3) what with dozens of channels backed by politcal parties, such as the (Shiite) Islamic Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Al Furat TV and the (Sunni) Iraqi Islamist Party's Baghdad TV.
However, that said, Iraqi broadcasters have much more to contend with than sectarian rivalries. The current security situation is so bad that channels are spending up to 20 percent of their monthly budgets to protect personnel, employees are regularly unable to show up at work, and filming outside of studios has become hazardous and potentially deadly. Despite the overwhelming post-Saddam boom, the future is far from certain for media in Iraq.
Governments led the way in establishing Iraq-orientated TV channels in the post-Saddam Hussein era. One of the first channels to start broadcasting with an Iraqi audience in mind was the Iranian government-backed, Arabic-language satellite TV network Al Alam (The World), which was launched during the invasion. The channel broadcasts throughout the Middle East (bureaus in Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut) but has given special focus to Iraq by hiring anchors and reporters with an Iraqi accent. “The reason for this is very simple actually, Iran is next door to Iraq,” says Faysal Abdel Sater, director of public relations at Al Alam. Indeed, for several months Al Alam was the only foreign TV channel Iraqis without satellite could watch, thanks to the network’s transmitters dotting the Iran-Iraq border.
One of Al Alam’s stated objectives is to “end the long-held monopoly of Western media in broadcasting news.” But alongside Al Alam and Pan-Arab satellite news giants Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Western powers were quick to replace one state broadcaster with another in Iraq. As soon as Coalition Forces controlled Baghdad, the US-funded Arabic language station Radio Sawa started broadcasting in March 2003 along with voice of America Kurdish and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Arabic station, known as Radio Free Iraq.
In March 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), with the aim of establishing a public broadcaster similar to that of the BBC and America’s PBS. The original network contract (eventually totaling some eight contracts worth $108.2 million) was awarded to the San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) by the US Defense Contracting Command to set up 24-hour news channel Al Iraqiya, a sports channel, two FM radio stations and a national newspaper. SAIC was replaced by US-based Harris Communications with a one-year, $96 million contract in January 2004 that was later renewed for six months.(4)
Al Iraqiya initially struggled to gain credibility among Iraqis. It was regarded as the voice of the occupying forces because of its close relations with the CPA and a weekly address by US Administrator Paul Bremer. Iraqi journalists and cameramen also complained that despite the colossal amounts of money provided to contractors, little was trickling down to them. Most were kept on pre-war salaries of $120 a month rather than the $800 a month Western networks offered or a $1,000 a month private stations were reportedly paying reporters.(5)
But after initial teething problems, Al Iraqiya started gaining ground, with 50 percent of Iraqis interviewed in a February 2004 poll by Oxford Research International expressing confidence in the channel, up 11 points from November 2003. Al Sumaria’s Boulos said the now government-run Al Iraqiya (although still financed by the US taxpayer) is the most-viewed terrestrial channel, largely because it is broadcast terrestrially and available to 93 percent of Iraqis. “Al Iraqiya is better now, showing more of what is going on in Iraq,” says Hameed Alaa Hameed, a network engineer from Baghdad.
However, the supposed impartiality of US-linked media has once again come under scrutiny following revelations in December 2005 that the Pentagon was secretly feeding hundreds of positive news stories, written by American military personnel and private contractors, to the Iraqi press. US Army General George W. Casey was reported as saying in March that the US military will continue to pay Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-US articles, adding that an internal review had concluded that no US laws or Pentagon guidelines were being violated by the policy, which aims to counter what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “a campaign of disinformation” by the Iraqi resistance.(6) Whether the US military also is feeding stories to Iraqi TV networks is not known, but with the freedom of print media unabashedly undermined it would seem far from conspiratorial to hypothesize that this is happening at some level in the broadcast media. “I don’t know if they are being given stories, but maybe some channels are getting footage, like Kurdish channels, as they are with the Americans,” says Hameed.
Certainly, state broadcaster Al Iraqiya seems to be given more privileged access by the Coalition forces than other channels . During a joint US and Iraqi military operation on the northern city of Tal Afar in late September 2005, Al Iraqiya was the only non-American camera team allowed to accompany the troops, according to Al Jazeera’s editor-in-chief Ahmed Al Sheikh.
The Iraqi Media Network's Al Iraqiya was not the United States’ only attempt to counteract the popularity of Pan-Arab news channels in Iraq, or in the rest of the region for that matter. In February 2004 Alhurra (The Free One) was established, and shortly after, in April, sister channel Alhurra Iraq began broadcasting. Alhurra has had moderate success around the region, but reached into only 15 percent of Iraqi households in June 2005, according to Ipsos-Stat.
For the UK, Britain’s BBC World Service Trust joined the fray fairly late, launching Al Mirbad TV and radio in August 2005 in southern Iraq. According to Abir Awad, a project developer for the World Service Trust, the channel is to provide independent media in southern Iraq. “The media in Iraq used to be very Baghdad centric so we aimed at a regional audience,” she says. The World Service Trust is an independent charity within the World Service that has developed media in other war-torn countries such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, although Al Mirbad is the Trust’s biggest project to date. The British government’s Department for International Development is providing Al Mirbad with $11.81 million for the next two years, after which the broadcaster will seek funding from international donors and advertisers. The Basra-based channel—“the station with a southern vibe”—is managed by Iraqis and currently produces four hours of original content a day. In addition to helping establish channels, Western governments have also been working to train Iraqi media workers. The BBC and USAID have both been involved in training programs for Iraqi journalists on balance and ethics.
TV Journalism Turns Deadly
The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq has resulted in the deadliest conflict for the news media in recent history. At least 67 journalists and 24 media support workers have been killed and 39 journalists kidnapped since the invasion. Five of the kidnapped journalists—four Iraqis and one Italian—were killed, and the others released. Many journalists also have been wounded covering the conflict, as well as harassed and imprisoned by the Coalition and Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi Media Network, which includes national broadcaster Al Iraqiya, has suffered the greatest losses, followed by Dubai-based Al Arabiya, with nine journalists and six support workers killed.(7)
“Everyday when I ask my guys to do a story it is a nightmare for me because I am worried what will happen,” says Nabil Al Khatib, executive editor at Al Arabiya, which has lost 11 staff.(8) (See Al Khatib's interview wih TBS in this issue)
Al Khatib believes the security situation is having a negative impact on news reporting. “If we are talking about serious coverage of an area, a troubled area like Iraq, you need to be able to move freely and go to different areas and pass on your impressions to the public. But to compile a decent, balanced and accurate story is something that most of the time is not doable. It is not impossible to work there but it takes time and a lot of energy that is in contradiction with the nature of news for a news channel.”
Among Al Khatib’s concerns with operating in Iraq is a controversial issue that all news channels in Iraq grapple with—embedding journalists with Coalition forces.
Al Khatib says he has two concerns with embedding correspondents, firstly that the US military request correspondents to be attached to a unit for a lengthy period, often weeks at a time, for security reasons before military operations. Al Khatib says that the channel cannot afford to have correspondents away on assignments for essentially an unknown period. Furthermore, Al Khatib says that with most assignments carried out by Iraqis, locals put themselves at risk if they embed with Coalition forces. “If he is seen with the Americans and comes back, it would be difficult to explain to people that it was just an assignment. People might be aggressive because he was embedded,” he explains.
Al Khatib’s concerns are not to be taken lightly. Of the 91 journalists and media workers killed in Iraq, 80 percent are Iraqi and some 60 percent were targeted for assassination.(9)
“The second concern is that we are afraid of sending someone to be embedded to only cover the American side and then we fail to cover the insurgent side, to be balanced. For CNN or other American networks they don’t care about being balanced or not. We cannot do that and we won’t do that,” he says.
Regulating or Restricting Broadcasters?
As if broadcasting in Iraq is not difficult enough, Iraq’s interim Governing Council set up a Higher Media Commission in the summer of 2003 to regulate and license the burgeoning TV market. In the September of that year the commission barred Pan-Arab news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya from covering the Governing Council’s activities for two weeks, claiming the networks promoted political violence and the killing of members of the council and the Coalition, and broadcast “terrorists terrorizing Iraqis.”
By July 2004, the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (INCMC) had been established, laying down rules and editorial standards for program content of television and radio broadcasters.
The commission, closely modeled on the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the UK’s communications’ regulator OfCom, first bared its teeth when it banned Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera for a month in August 2004 for “incitement to hatred” after broadcasting stories on the Iraqi resistance. Al Arabiya was back on air after a month, but Al Jazeera has remained blacklisted ever since. Al Jazeera’s editor in chief, Ahmed Al Sheikh, believes the decision was politically motivated. “It was a joint US-Iraqi decision. If they wanted to have reversed that decision they could have,” he says.
Al Jazeera has experienced such bans in the past in Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestine, but the Iraqi ban has particularly aggravated the channel. “I think the people behind the closure are those who don’t like the truth, no more, no less. They don’t like Al Jazeera,” says Al Jazeera presenter and producer Mohammed Al Bouniry. “By shutting down Al Jazeera they will have no problem to shut others down.”
However, no other channel has been banned in Iraq and other broadcasters do not share the same grievances as Al Jazeera. Al Diyar’s Al Yasiri is supportive of the commission: “We don’t have any form of censorship. At this point in time, Iraq is the freest country in the Arab world for the media.”
But Star TV Network’s Saad Al Saraf believes the commission is not living up to its potential. “It could be bigger and wider, and just revolves around one person (Siyamend Othman). It has not successfully tackled issues in media bias, such as during the elections,” he says. Indeed, there seems to be a sort of "look the other way" approach to enforcing the commission’s rules, such as the ban on "spreading sectarian, racial and religious sedition and strife."
Broadcasting Sectarian Strife?
A cursory glance at the backing and orientation of many channels reveals the extent to which sectarian issues are driving broadcasting, which can only exacerbate sectarian proclivities that are increasingly apparent in Iraq.
Al Salam TV relies on funding from Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, Ghadeer TV on the Higher Council of the Islamic Revolution, Al Masar TV on the Islamic Da'awa Party, and Ahlul Bayt TV (The House of the Prophet Muhammad) on the patronage of Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hadi Al Moderassi. Baghdadia TV is considered a moderate Sunni channel and Baghdad TV, run by the Iraqi Islamist Party, is known as "Baathist TV" among Shiites who criticize its pro-Sunni agenda. Afaq TV (Horizons) shows video footage in support of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and Muqtada Al Sadr.
Babil TV reportedly offers programming in support of the Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and Biladi TV runs programs in support of the United Iraqi Alliance.
Al Furat (The Euphrates) is reportedly backed by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and supported the Unified Iraqi Coalition during the elections, which has the backing of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The channel's director general, Arshad Tawfiq, was a former Iraqi ambassador to Spain and a former Baath Party official, and is now a member of the Supreme Council for National Salvation. The station opposes the presence of the Coalition forces in Iraq, and refers to Iraqis killed by Coalition troops as “martyrs.”
As desired above. the Coalition-created Al Iraqiya channel initially was lambasted as a pro-American mouthpiece, but since it was turned over to the Iraqi government is widely viewed as a sectarian, Shiite channel.
Al Bazzaz’s Al Sharqiya is considered a more toned channel, although overt support was shown for former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the recent elections and some view the channel as pro-Sunni. An Iraqi who worked for Al Sharqiyah in Dubai, who did not wish to disclose his name, told TBS that many of the channel’s employees do not like Shiites, a bias that is reflected in the channel’s employment policies. “They kicked me out when they knew I was Shia. It is a pro-Sunni channel,” he says.
The channel was mockingly dubbed “Al Baathiya” upon launch because of Al Bazzaz’s personal history as the head of the Baath regime’s national news agency until 1992. Al Bazzaz is also rumored to have political ambitions and was alleged to have received millions of dollars from the Saudi government to launch the Iraqi Azzaman newspaper in a British high court hearing last year.(10)
Ethnic minorities also have a political media presence. Ashur TV, which represents the Assyrian Democratic Movement, receives 50 percent of its funding from the party and the rest from supporters around the world. The Iraqi Turkoman Front funds Turkomaneli TV. Baghdad’s Shafak TV is backed by the Kurdish authorities, Kurdistan TV by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and ATB TV is linked to the Kurdistan Communist Party. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, operates Al Hurriyah TV and PUK TV. KurdSat TV reportedly supports the PUK.
The extent to which sectarianism is affecting Iraq’s media content, particularly news, was evident following the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Sunni-orientated channels such as the Iraqi Islamic Party’s Baghdad TV, which has no correspondents in either of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, focused on Sunnis attacked in retaliation for the bombing, while Shiite-run channels Al Furat and Al Iraqiya devoted coverage to the damage to the shrine and the plight of Shiites under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al Furat reportedly aired slogans telling Shiites to stand up for their rights.(11)
Even Al Jazeera has come under fire from Iraq’s sectarianism, with Shiites taking to the streets in December 2005 to protest against the channel for broadcasting a remark, made by a guest on a talk show, arguing that religious authority Ayatollah Sistani should stay out of politics. BBC analyst Magdi Abdelhadi believes the demonstrations were a "testimony to the tense relationship between the Shias and the Sunni Arabs. Attacking Al Jazeera becomes a symbolic salvo in the simmering hostility" of Iraq.(12)
These cases do not differ radically from Lebanon’s broadcasting environment. In Lebanon, the TV landscape reflects that of the sectarian political system: Mustaqbal (Future), owned by the Hariri family, is a Sunni channel, LBC is Christian, Al Manar is backed by Shiite political party Hezbollah, and NBN is partially backed by Shiite parliamentary speaker and head of the Amal movement Nabih Berri.(13)
The sectarian nature of Lebanese television was apparent last year when over a million Lebanese thronged to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on March 14 to demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. Instead of broadcasting the event Al Manar TV re-broadcast footage of "the Shia" demonstration in downtown that occurred on March 8. Conversely, although LBC and Al Mustaqbal did cover the March 8 demonstration, far more footage was given to ‘their’ demonstration on March 14, repeating the images again and again in the weeks and months that followed.
These three dominant Lebanese channels, along with NBN, are in many senses leftovers from the civil war period, when radio stations were backed by the separate factions before making the leap to television broadcasting.(14) Iraq, on the other hand, has made this transition during a devastating occupation and at a more macro level in line with its population’s own demographics.
At least in Lebanon’s case, such media publicly sustains already deeply rooted sectarian divisions, albeit with greater sensitivity towards other religions than in the past.(15) But in Iraq’s case, where the media is caught up in political turmoil, violence, and a renewed sectarianism that had been kept at bay by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the struggle for viewers—and voters—is perhaps even more acute than in Lebanon, where sectarianism has been the status quo well before the 1860 civil war, and is formerly enshrined in the country’s constitution (1943). After all, the political and social sectarianism of Iraq is, like the multiple political party scene and media landscape, a very new arena that will no doubt change alongside political developments. Channels may fare as their political backers do, sink or swim. But with no effective or impartial national public TV channel—the moribund TeleLiban is hardly watched, and Al Iraqiya favors Iraq’s Shiite government—both Lebanon and Iraq’s media will remain driven by sectarianism.
Although the Iraqi market is likely to see more channels being launched—the INCMC reportedly has 20 applications pending—broadcasting will continue to be a struggle in the absence of stability. And for the foreseeable future, funding for channels is likely to remain primarily in the hands of political and religious groups rather than the commercial or state sectors, much like in Lebanon.